As a science fiction obsessed teenager of the 80’s, I’m very at home in any ruined, dystopian city. I feel the warming thrill of recognition every time I step into the rain-soaked, noir-inflected Los Angeles of Blade Runner. I embrace every diseased nook of the panopticon metropolis that serves as Snake Pliskin’s playground in Escape From New York. The Orwellian miasma of London as visioned in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or Batman’s Gotham or Judge Dredd’s Megacity One – all stopovers in the Nerd’s Grand Tour of the late 20th Century. It seemed an entire generation of nascent teen anti-heroes were hell-bent on getting out of suburban bedrooms and living in crumbling, neon-flecked chaos. The Apocalypse might have seemed like a playground to us, upstairs in our semi-detached prisons. That’s the power of imagination. The reality, when directly confronted, requires a very different type of creative thinking. And Detroit is very real.
Once America’s fourth largest city, with a population of near two million, Motor City was said to have actually created the middle-class in America, courtesy of what the locals still refer to as ‘Automotive’. Now here it lies – the only city in the US that is actually contracting economically and a testament to those who believe that nothing lasts forever. We would read of the barbarian hordes picking through Rome in the 6th century or the Saxons entering the long-abandoned Londinium in smug wonder. It could never happen to us. No?
Much has been written about the spectacle of this City of Ghosts, set between the Great Lakes. The once thumping, pulsing hub of the industrial Midwest – the rhythm that went into every Motown (and non-Motown) soul record – Detroit is a vision of what happens when an industrial base collapses. One critic pointed out ‘the logic that created it, destroyed it.’
A direct link can be drawn between the car industry and the music industry. The city became wealthy because it fed the world cars. But the world came to love Detroit for it’s music – music made by people who had, in the main worked in car plants. Both were so deeply entrenched, they stopped innovating. Stagnation was inevitable.
Its recent history is almost passing into myth. Of how the exodus started with the plants going to the suburbs in the 50’s, that it never truly recovered from the 60’s race riots, of how the 80’s labour wars and Reaganomics left an entire work force bereft and crack just fire hosed away the remnants. Of how an entire downtown became voided and the city actively enacted a programme to shrink itself – losing 10,000 homes and over 100 schools in four years from 2010. The suburbs thrived. The car industry nearly tanked. And the Parthenons and Acropoli and Coloseums of Ford and Chrysler and General Motors were left to collapse.
Any visitor will be stilled by these structures. Iconic among them is the Michigan Central Station. Built in 1913, this beautiful Beaux Arts monolith with enough office space for 3000 people was already on the endangered list after WW2. It now sits in stately silence, surrounded by barbed wire. In fact, that quiet is, for a visitor from any other city, deafening. When Frenchmen Yves Marchand and Roman Meffre photographically documented these gorgeous wrecks in 2005, the world did take note. Why wouldn’t it? The images were beautiful and a little chilling. Who could believe that anything like this existed in the West? Not everyone was so impressed.
“I found it a little pornographic and it didn’t tell the whole story, but it did make the city intriguing. It started a cultural conversation.”
Angel Gambino is a Detroit native, who returned last year from São Paolo, Brazil, where she was vice president and investor of the social media network Sonico. Highpoints in a frighteningly dense and impressive CV include being London-based vice president of the San Francisco-based social media site Bebo, which was sold to what was then AOL Time Warner for $850 million in 2008. Angel decided to use her modest slice to good effect. Seemingly tireless and perpetually motivated, she has returned home to apply her incredible talent for growing online communities and applying those tools to a real world setting.
“There’s still opportunity in the property market. In the last three years, property prices have fallen by 80%. But there’s a fear of outsiders coming in and buying up. It’s a market of inefficiencies. Prices are out of whack with what’s next door and the surrounding area. So no one in Detroit wants to inflate that market, since it will defeat the point of slowly building the area. Our building cost $270,000 100,000 sq ft and including parking equals 300,000 square feet. Within two months a property next door with 40,000 sq ft – and needing shit loads of work, went for $1 million That’s what I mean by market inefficiencies.”
‘Our building’ is 2051 Rosa Parks, an old brass foundry that went into profit two months after Angel opened it. Already home to the Detroit branch of the Huffington Post, the local chapter of cool property blog, Curbed and many other local brands and retailers, it sits just off Michigan Avenue, the arrow straight East-West boulevard that shoots out of Downtown towards the sunset. Lying in the shadow of the ghostly Michigan Central Station, the historically Irish junction known as Corktown is one of the most upcoming areas. At the corner, along Michigan, there is the golden strip – literally the epicentre for young, aspirant locals and suburbanites in the city. There is the Sugar House, a suave cocktail bar, a perky, quality coffee shop, the Astro and the truly defining location of any self-respecting hipster locale from Brooklyn to Dalston, a craft beer and BBQ joint, Slows. Aptly named, because it is always mobbed. A retro gourmet burger joint, The Mercury is doing great business over the street.
I ask her about the risk of homogenisation, as can be seen in the ‘mall-ification’ of Westfield at the now regenerated Olympic park in Stratford, East London.
“I love Westfield and think it’s great for Stratford. But you can’t do that in Detroit. They’ve got that in the suburbs. We need to create a cooler experience. They can get everything they want out there and online, too. So we need to promote unique destination retail and leisure experiences with walkable density. There are these great places – Slow’s, Sugar House, the Eastern Market. But where else is there? I live next door to Slow’s and I know the owners and even I sometimes can’t get a table. It’s that oversubscribed. There’s a couple of other places now, all opened by local entrepreneurs, but we need more…”
The more is coming. A growing group of incredibly young and creative entrepreneurial talent is finding its way to Corktown in the west and the old Eastern Market, which is exactly where you imagine it would be. They display an ambition and a vision for the long-term that is quite at odds with their relative youth. Jeff Else, 27, is a native from the suburbs. After dropping out of high school and moving into the city at 19, he worked disassembling old 80’s mall cinemas. With a stash of equipment and a massive hole in the art film market, Jeff and his friends, with a shoestring budget, launched a ‘pop up’ cinema in the Burton Theatre, part of a downtown dilapidated school. Utterly unique, it became a hugely popular cultural landmark, screening foreign films and cult classics and plans were afoot to turn the school gym into a second screen. The basement toilets were already a multi-tasking 8-ball pool hall. Word of mouth was building.
However a dispute over fees with their landlord led to them walking away. Jeff and co spent the first half of 2012 screening films in locations from warehouses to car parks. Then they found their fairy godmother. Yes, that girl Gambino again. Now to launch, phoenix-like, at another of her properties as the Corktown Cinema, the brand is another piece in the jigsaw of Detroit’s cultural renaissance. Else points out, “I’m prepared to stay as long as it takes. Young people love the organic feel of the underground scene here. Unlike Williamsburg in Brooklyn or Silverlake in LA, the gentrification that ruins that authenticity will take years to take hold here. It won’t be commodified. That makes it special and exciting.”
Says Gambino, “We need people with extraordinary tenacity and a passion to execute. There’s nowhere like it in the USA. From being the place that gave America mobility, it can now be a base for truly mobile people. You’re an hour and $75 from New York. A five-minute drive from Canada. And you can come back to a waterfront home that cost you $75,000”
I ask if these cool, hip leisure facilities can really be the wellspring of the renaissance she talks about. “We need to develop entire blocks, because the increase in tax revenue will benefit the community. It’s a triple bottom line business I’m creating. Property acquisition will be the start of it. Rosa Parks is already a profitable business and it took three months to do it.”
All these very busy guys have time on their side, if not on their hands. Still holding down a job in local TV news, Ben Freidman now runs the Burton Theatre as Cass City Cinema. He lives in a massive downtown apartment that costs a quarter of the rent he’d pay in New York or LA (and is five times the size). Ben’s room mate, Fred, has uprooted from New York and is developing a range of healthy vegetarian ready meals and snacks to be sold at groceries and gas stations. The plan is to start in Michigan and roll out. Slowly. Whilst the idea of blue-collar truckers indulging in goat’s cheese and falafel seems ludicrous now, the ability to see future trends is key.
At hip Eastern Market diner, Russell Street Deli, the owners are two Jewish boys from the outlying suburbs who worked here as potwashers in their teens. They’ve worked hard to develop a small but extremely popular business. Their range of exquisite, freshly-made chowders (I couldn’t pick a winner out of any three) have become legendary. They are preparing for to expand their brand – with the soups and another restaurant – again ,at a stately pace. Now Gordon Ramsay-esque over reach for them. Even my 23-year-old waitress has developed a model for an ethical vegan catering business. Lunch here is as inspiring as it is delicious. Only when I ask about demographic variations in the custom base does the convivial air sour somewhat. I’m curious if the white weekend crowd I see packing the tables changes during the week. In Detroit, this is a huge faux pas. Over cocktails at Sugar House, another local explains:
“Post riots, the tensions didn’t decrease and even stalwart Detroit companies like Tamla-Motown moved out. Politically, the African-American community became dominant, who rightfully felt that it wasn’t the time to start abandoning home. However, economically, things were far out of the control of any civic governance and things got worse. So, naturally, from a community perspective, there is a sensitivity to outsiders coming in to ‘save’ the situation.” Angel Gambino isn’t so sure.
“It’s not like it is in the UK, or indeed other places in America. The riots didn’t help, sure. The whites moved out of Downtown and the African-American community moved out during the housing crisis. But class and status anxiety is a bigger problem across Michigan than race. If we can make the city seem safe, then the schools will return. Families will flock back. I have African-American friends who joke they would now live in the university area, because they see that white families live there, so it must be safe!’
One outsider that the local community should happily embrace is Michael V. Roberts. One of the most successful African-American entrepreneurs in the United States, he cuts an impressive figure – physically, personally and professionally. A broad 6’ 4” in his pinstripe suit, possessing unnervingly piercing green eyes, Roberts was born to middle class parents, educated in the public school system of his hometown, St. Louis, and worked his way through college and law school to become a success in the construction business, mixing acumen with civic responsibility. Maintaining a strong commitment to the African-American community, his involvement in public policy contributed to St. Louis’ revival in the 80’s. In partnership with his brother Steven, the Roberts empire now takes in television and radio broadcasting, real estate development, with hotel ownership and management across the States and the Caribbean. He has also been, bizarrely, a part owner of Luton Town Football Club, alongside Alan Partridgesque TV host, Nick Owen.
I meet him at his Detroit hotel, the Roberts Riverwalk. The property is in some ways a living record of the city’s fortunes. A fine example of 19th Century American public redbrick architecture, situated on the banks of the Detroit River, it was originally a pharmaceutical laboratory – America’s very first purpose-built science facility. Bought by a brewing company in the 70’s as industry retreated, it was poorly run and structurally compromised by successive owners. It had fallen into commercial non-entity by the time Michael decided to buy it in 2007. The remodelling had been so brutal, the building’s listed status was to be withdrawn and the location had also become less than salubrious. This was a shame, as the property and the area provides wonderful views across the river (actually a strait between Lakes St. Clair and Erie) of the once rarefied civic playground on Belle Isle which sits in the middle. It is also, trivia fans, the only place in the entire US where one can look south into Canada, which sits on the other bank, due to a quirk of geography.
The area and property now fully restored to former glories, the Riverwalk is testament to Robert’s belief that if you build it, they will come. Entirely staffed and managed by African-Americans, it is an elegant, culturally rich and comfortable place to stay. Half boutique hotel, half grand personal residence in atmosphere and fixtures, it is probably the best place to stay if you want to avoid the homogenised chain experience. This is, in many ways, the face of the new Detroit. An in demand public speaker, Roberts has written powerfully of the need for Authenticity (that word again) in his self-penned business philosophy, ‘Action Has No Season’. Over coffee, he explains his approach and beliefs.
“It is my view that power and wealth are elusive and ephemeral. Acting with confidence, bravado and authenticity – an honest and open set of values – gives you authority. And that lasts far longer than power. In my book, I call those who act in this way Actionaires. They win long-term by conquering business deals, opportunities when they emerge, but more` importantly, human relationships. There are many young people in Detroit who are Actionaires”
Roberts believes that, like in St. Louis, the important thing is to create a proper sustainable business ecosystem and not put all eggs in one basket.
“Someone has to move industry here and the city needs to create a tax environment to make that possible. Technology firms have an available and trainable workforce, here. Now. Automotive still has a presence – the hotel will be full through January due to Motor Industry conventions and expos. But we’re trying to make cultural things happen down here, too” To that effect, The Roberts Riverwalk is a very happening place – an 18 piece swing jazz band one night, a rap contest the next. Michael is passionate about his music and is on talking terms with many of the greats.
“I’m good friends with George Clinton of Funkadelic. George got into, erm, a haze in the 80’s and signed some stuff he shouldn’t have. I have extricated him from those contracts.
I’ve helped a lot of friends of mine. James Brown. Muhammed Ali. All close friends.“ I believe him. Sadly, his thoughts on the Hatters’ current purgatorial languishment in the Football Conference League are not recorded.
You can’t talk about Detroit without talking about it’s musical legacy – from Aretha Franklin and Motown to Iggy Pop, Alice Cooper and The White Stripes. The downtown venues still feature great musicians and the Motown Museum at the label’s original semi-detached location (the studio was built in the garage) is a must see. As is the Ford Museum, Henry Ford’s personal wunderkabinet, the home to every significant American object and artifact the Smithsonian didn’t get its hands on, such as Edison’s Lab (rebuilt in situ) and the Lincoln Convertible that was JFK’s last ride. On a Friday night, Downtown has it’s glamour crowd, dining at rightly famed restaurant, Roast, or smoothly congregating at suave jazz clubs, like Cliff Bells. For a city that is actively dismantling itself, there is definitely a sense of fertile ground. Detroit gets 15 million visitors a year and in the last few years downtown has gained more than $15 billion in new investment from private and public sectors.
It will never look the same again, but with whole housing blocks being used as community farms or art works (such as amazing The Heisenberg Project), that may be to it’s advantage. With business awards such as Hatch Detroit incentivising the new breed of creative business people, alongside established investors like Roberts and Gambino, the new Detroit may become one of the world’s most exciting and, yes, authentic, cities again.
Angel herself is realistic, but confident.
“I have no doubt that the economy here will boom. But I think it’ll take up to 20 years. What I saw in the BRIC countries I see here – opportunity and low-cost barriers with an educated workforce. I’ve built virtual communities and now I’m working hard to improve this one. I want my son to walk around Corktown ten years from now and say, with pride, “My mom helped create this.”